The income, poverty and health insurance data released by the Census Bureau on September 13 confirms what many of us already knew. President Obama’s last year was one of economic improvement for many individuals. The median income rose from $57,230 in 2015 to $59,039 in 2016, an increase of 3.2 percent. Black income rose 5.4 percent, from $37, 364 in 2015 to $39,400 in 2016, while White income rose from $63, 745 to $65,041, an increase of two percent. The income gap narrowed very slightly, with African Americans making 58 percent of White earnings in 2015 and 60 percent of White earnings in 2016. This income ratio typically hovers around 60 percent, and this situation has not improved, since 1967. Despite an absolute improvement in incomes, the racial income disparity remains.
Fewer than 1 in 10 whites earned less than $15,000 per year, compared to 20 percent of African Americans at that low earning level. While 18 percent of Whites earned less than $25,000 a year, fully one-third of African Americans earned so little. At the same time, while 7.4 percent of Whites earned more than $200,000 a year, only 2.8 percent of African Americans had similarly high earnings. At the top, there was significant improvement for African Americans—we didn’t cross the 1 percent line on high earning until 1997, and now our percentage has more than doubled. Still, it would take hundreds of years, at the rate we are going, to close the gap with Whites.
With incomes as low as they are, it is unsurprising to find African Americans more heavily represented among the poor than Whites are, but again, President Obama’s last year in office saw a real drop in the poverty level. The poverty rate dropped from 13.5 percent in 2015 to 12.7 percent in 2016, and the Black poverty rate dropped from 24.1 percent to 22.0 percent. There were 800,000 fewer African Americans in poverty in 2016 than in 2015. That’s good news. Child poverty was also overwhelming. With 15.1 percent of White children living in poverty there were nearly twice as many Black children living in poverty at 29.5 percent. Among elders, 8 percent of White seniors were poor, compared to 18.5 percent of African American seniors. And when Black women headed households, 34.2 percent of those households lived in poverty.
While these numbers make a clear case that President Obama improved the situation for all Americans, it is also clear that his unwillingness or inability to target programs toward the African American poor maintained the size of the income gap, and maintained the fact that African Americans experience twice as much poverty as Whites, earning only 60 percent of the incomes that Whites do. This gap will not be closed unless there is some intervention, some form of reparations, or some special program that will empower African Americans. If that didn’t happen in the Obama administration, it is unlikely to happen in during the current one.
President Obama’s singular success, of course, was health care. More than 93 percent of Whites, 92 percent of Asian Americans, 89.5 percent of African Americans and 84 percent of Hispanics had health care in 2016, continuing an upward trend that began in 2011 with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Of course, Republicans have promised to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. They have been unsuccessful, because so many Americans like the program and use it, even though it has flaws. The program should be tweaked, but not replaced, but we’ll see what happens in coming months.
Despite improvements in income data, too many Americans aren’t feeling the improvements. That’s how “45” was able to manipulate people into believing that they were worse off than they had ever been, and that he was going to improve their quality of life. To be sure, while the unemployment rate is way down, there are also people sitting on the sidelines of the labor force. Raises seem to be coming, but quite slowly, and a 3.2 percent increase in income, after several years of declining income, seems not to be enough. Additionally, there are millions of millennials who came of age during the recession, having spent years marginally employed, and are shouldering the burden of high student loans. Small increases in income don’t make these folks feel flush. Many still feel that they are just getting by.
Knowing “45,” he will crow about these numbers, though he truly cannot take any responsibility for them. This data is 2016 data, and the improvement here can be solely attributed to President Obama. The proof of 45’s pudding will come next year, when 2017 data are reported. Will we be better off with the repeal of the ACA? Will incomes rise or fall under 45’s leadership? What will happen with poverty in an administration that has already taken actions to keep wages low? Will the Obama momentum come to a skidding halt because of 45’s policies? We’ll have to wait and see, but it is clear that 45 has already taken too many steps in the wrong direction.
Julianne Malveaux, Contributor
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women. She is an economist, author and commentator who’s popular writings have appeared in USA Today, Black Issues in Higher Education, Ms.Magazine, Essence Magazine, the Progressive and many more.
Well-known for appearances on national network programs, including CNN, BET, PBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, C-SPAN and others; Malveaux is booked to offer commentary on subjects ranging from economics to women’s rights and public policy. She has also hosted television and radio programs.
A committed activist and civic leader, Dr. Malveaux has held positions in women’s, civil rights, and policy organizations. Currently she serves on the boards of the Economic Policy Institute, The Recreation Wish List Committee of Washington, DC, and the Liberian Education Trust. Malveaux is also President of PUSH Excel, the educational branch of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
She has also lectured at more than 500 colleges/universities and corporate events. For the last 5 years Dr. Malveaux has focused and centered her efforts on public speaking appearances and her work as a broadcast and print / journalist and author.